What Is Faith?

Have you ever wondered about faith, doubted that you had it, or wished you had more? Few things are more misunderstood than faith. Yet, few things are more important.

Did you know that without faith it is impossible to please God? Try as you might, work as hard as you will, you will not and cannot please God without faith. You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s right in the Bible, in Hebrews 11 and verse 6: “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”

Well, if faith is so important, how do we get it? Even more basic, what is faith, anyway? I want to look at what faith is, explain how you can get it, and I’m even going to show you how you can please God and be saved.

A small boy riding a bus home from Sunday school was very proud of the card he had received. It had a picture and a caption that read, “Have Faith in God.” Then to his dismay the card slipped from his hand and fluttered out the window. “Stop the bus!” he cried. “I’ve lost my ‘faith in God!’” The driver pulled the bus to a stop, and, as the lad climbed out and went to retrieve his card, one of the adult riders smiled and made a comment about the innocence of youth. A more perceptive adult observed, “All of us would be better off if we were that concerned about our faith.”

And so we should be, because, as we just read, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, let’s begin by finding out what this thing called faith is.

What is faith?

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is often called the faith chapter of the Bible because it centers on faith. In verse one, it begins by telling us, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So this is exactly what we need—a definition of faith.

But a definition doesn’t do us any good if we can’t understand it. So let’s look at this definition closely. To begin, what does “the substance of things hoped for” mean? What can the word “substance” mean in this definition?

The original Greek word translated as substance in some Bible versions, such as the King James Version of the Bible, is hupostasis. Now, I’m sure you know that words can sometimes have several meanings, and that sometimes these meanings are connected to each other. They sometimes even evolve from one another. Hupostasis is like that. It has several meanings, all of which come from its basic meaning of “a setting or placing under,” like a substructure or foundation. From that, hupostasis is sometimes used to mean the real thing, as opposed to only the image or shadow of the thing. From that meaning, hupostasiscame to mean, “a steadfastness of mind,” “confidence,” or “assurance.”

Now, although the King James Version of the Bible is an excellent version of the Bible, I believe that here in Hebrews 11, verse 1, it would be better to translate hupostasis, not as “substance,” but as “assurance.” I think you’ll immediately see why I say that when you read the first part of the verse with hupostasis translated “assurance.” “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”

Assurance makes us sure of something. When we say that we hope for something, we are saying that we would like it to be so. But we are not saying that we are sure it will be so. But when we have assurance, we are sure. So faith is what makes us sure of what we hope for.

Now let’s look at the last part of the verse. It says that faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” Again, it will be helpful to look at the Greek word translated “evidence.” The Greek word translated here as “evidence” is elegchos. Actually, “evidence” is a good translation of it, but it can also be translated “proof.” So, we can say that faith is the evidence or proof of things not seen.

Let’s put it together then. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence [or proof] of things not seen.” In other words, faith makes us sure of the things we hope for, and that assurance is itself proof of these things.

Suppose I go to a car dealer and buy a car. It’s exactly what I want, but something needs to be done to it, so I can’t drive it home that day. I have to wait a couple of days. But I have a bill of sale. I have a proof that I bought the car and its mine. If anyone asks me whether I really bought the car, I can pull out that paper and show him and say, “See, I own that car.” That paper assures me that I own the car; it assures me that in a couple of days, what I hope for will be real. I’ll be able to drive my car home. It is proof that, even though I can’t see the car, I own it. That’s what faith is. It makes me sure of what I hope for, and it is proof that what I hope for is mine. I want to emphasize that it “is mine”—not just “maybe mine” or “as good as mine” but “is mine.” So, to make it even simpler, what is faith? Faith is translated from the Greek word pistis. It simply means “belief” or “confident belief” or “assured belief.”

What Are the Things Hoped For?

Now, I said we were going to look at how we get faith. And that’s very important. But first, it’s also important that we go back to Hebrews 11:1 and see what are these things “hoped for”? What are these “things not seen”? Hebrews 11 gives us several examples of the types of things that are believed by faith. Verse 3 tells us, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” In other words, we adhere to the Creation account of the Bible by faith. It is not the evidence of fossils, or the evidence in the rocks, or the evidence detected by telescopes that causes us to believe the Creation account. It is faith.

In the verses that follow, we see that it was by faith that Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by faith Enoch was translated or taken up so that he did not see death, by faith Noah prepared the ark, by faith Abraham traveled to the promised land and “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” by faith Sarah was able to give birth to a child when she was past the age of child bearing, by faith Abraham offered up Isaac, by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, by faith Joseph told of how the children of Israel would leave Egypt, by faith Moses’ parents weren’t afraid of the king’s command and hid him three months, by faith Moses chose to associate himself with the children of God rather than keep the luxury he would have had as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, by faith Moses left Egypt not fearing the anger of the king, by faith he kept the Passover with its sprinkling of blood, by faith the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, by faith the walls of Jericho fell, by faith Rahab did not perish with the unbelievers.

Many more examples are alluded to, but let’s look at verse 13: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” They all believed something they did not yet have and died in faith without having received it.

Verses 39 and 40 tell us something similar but give us a little more information: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” What’s this? After mentioning all of these famous people, these pillars of faith who did mighty works, WE are mentioned. Yes, WE are. You and I. These great men and women of faith all died without having received what they had faith in because God was waiting for us. They will yet receive it, but God was waiting for us to be born and to have faith.

Copyright © 2005-2012 Peter Ditzel